Say "soul food" and most people imagine a spread of barbecued ribs, fried chicken and pork chops, ham, black-eyed peas and green beans with ham hocks, corn bread, macaroni and cheese, potato salad, and a delectable list of desserts.
"That is not 'soul food,' " said Ishmael Shakur. Instead, to him, it is "destroying souls."
A vegetarian for six years, the 38-year-old who works with teenagers at the Zepf Center in Toledo gets upset when such a menu is labeled traditional African-American food.
"A lot of people think a real good, wholesome meal is when you sit back bloated and full and nod off," he said. "To me, soul food is food that adds to your spirit, gives you energy, gives you life, and helps you feel vibrant."
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Mr. Shakur is among a rising number of black Americans who are becoming vegetarian and vegan, who eat a plant-based diet as well as grains, fruits, nuts, and seeds and exclude red meat, poultry, and seafood. There are several types of vegetarians: lacto vegetarians eat dairy products but not eggs; ovo vegetarians eat eggs but not dairy products; lacto-ovo vegetarians eat both eggs and dairy products, and vegans do not eat honey or any animal products whatsoever. Also, pescetarians eat seafood but no other flesh.
While there are no firm numbers, anecdotal evidence indicates a rising interest in vegetarianism and veganism among black Americans. In fact, their interest has contributed to the growing list of Internet sites and cookbooks geared to that group, including By Any Greens Necessary by Tracye Lynn McQuirter; Vegan Soul Kitchen: Fresh, Healthy, & Creative African American Cuisine by Bryant Terry, and The Ethnic Vegetarian by Angela Shelf Medearis.
Among the well-known black Americans who maintain the meatless lifestyle are athletes Hank Aaron and Carl Lewis; Hollywood's Cicely Tyson, Angela Bassett, and Vanessa Williams; entrepreneur Russell Simmons, and musician Lenny Kravitz.
The reasons several black Toledoans give for taking up a plant-based diet vary from being inspired by others, for health reasons, and because eating meat had lost its appeal.
"Just the thought that I was eating an animal -- I grossed myself out of not eating meat," said Dawn Humphrey, 43, a vegetarian since 1998. "I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner and had a big turkey on the table and I couldn't eat it. I gave it away." However, the talent acquisition consultant at Huntington Bank still eats fish about once a month.
"I've been trying to stop eating fish," she said, "but I love my catfish and shrimp."
When Mr. Shakur was young, he wouldn't eat from dishes that vegetarian relatives took to family functions. He thought they were strange.
"I had family members who were vegetarians when I was growing up and I never had the desire to go to their tables because I honestly thought they were kind of weird," he said. "The funny thing now is that they are in their 60s and 70s and they are in perfect health."
After six years as a vegetarian, he realizes that those relatives were not odd. A yoga instructor inspired him to become vegetarian.
"I tried it for 30 days and I noticed a huge difference. I had more energy, my sleeping patterns were better," he said.
He resumed eating turkey and then seafood for a couple of months each before taking meat completely out of his diet.
Because the cultural perception is that blacks eat a lot of meat, some have found L'Tanya Hague, 51, to be unusual. A vegetarian since 1986, three of her four children are also vegetarian. "When they were little, I had people say it was terrible," that they didn't eat meat, said Ms. Hague, a supervisor at Libbey Glass.
And through the years when others have tried to sway Ms. Hague, the attempts had the opposite effect.
"That gave me more motivation" to remain vegetarian, she said. When people say, " 'Wow, you don't eat meat?' it makes me feel different, not better, but like I have achieved something that others find difficult to do."
She was instrumental in urging a colleague, Greg Cunningham, 56, to become vegetarian.
"At first I was just trying to eat healthy. I had put on so much weight," said Mr. Cunningham. He has lost 75 pounds since he changed his diet earlier this year.
Now, when there's a potluck with co-workers at Libbey Glass, he takes a vegetable tray. And though his wife, Phyllis, is not vegetarian, this father of three sons boasts that he prepares such dishes as vegetable shish kabob and lasagna for cookouts and holidays.
"I eat meatless meats; they are good. I have no desire to eat steak. I put on a veggie burger and get jokes, but it's fine and doesn't bother me a bit," he said.
Though Mr. Cunningham is diabetic and has high blood pressure, he said he feels much better and hopes his doctor will let him stop taking some medications.
"It's a health thing and a way of life. I am more healthy and more energetic. I want to see my grandchildren. God, I feel good," he said.
Cynthia Snodgrass also cited health reasons for her change.
"It's a lifestyle change," said the 30-something Bowling Green State University worker. "It's acknowledging the common sense cause and effect of foods that I eat."
This wife and mother of a blended family of four children urges anyone interested in becoming a non-meat eater to research alternatives and to plan meals, as it's a lot more than merely eating salads.
"I never was a big meat eater," she said, adding that the protein, vitamins, and minerals in meat can be found in fresh vegetables, fruits, beans, and nuts.
Largely the lone vegetarian in her household, Ms. Snodgrass understands that the cost of fresh foods and meatless meals are deterrents.
"If a family can buy a pack of bologna cheaper than a pound of bing cherries, they'll go for the bologna to feed their family. So, I get it. There's a way to build a vegetarian kitchen cost effectively, but it takes time, patience, and creativity," she said.
It can be challenging, though.
"It's important to remember that you're human; you're allowed to make mistakes as many times as you triumph," Ms. Snodgrass said. "But most of all, I believe vegetarianism is an important journey that everyone should choose to experience at least once in their lifetime."
Contact Rose Russell at: email@example.com or 419-724-6178.